By Emilio Parodi and Barry Moody
ROME (Reuters) - Lawyers in Naples taped up their mouths and turned their backs on a government speaker at a solemn ceremony to mark the start of Italy's judicial year.
Colleagues abandoned a similar ceremony in Venice last week, leaving their robes symbolically on their chairs. Italy's hundreds of thousands of lawyers plan a strike and nationwide demonstrations on February 23-24 and have threatened to block all judicial activity.
Protests against censorship or a crackdown on basic liberties?
No such thing. Just the latest in a wave of protests by closed trades and professions against reforms by Prime Minister Mario Monti to open up the chronically stagnant economy.
The idea of a lawyers' strike might seem strange in many countries, but in Italy it has scarcely raised an eyebrow.
The lawyers will follow protests by everybody from pharmacists to taxi drivers against Monti's attempt to liberalize tightly closed professions and trades and stimulate growth in a country threatened by the euro zone debt crisis.
Monti's chief of staff, Antonio Catricala, told Reuters that the administration would not be diverted from reforms to boost competition despite the opposition of powerful lobbies who have defied similar efforts by several previous governments.
"These are small groups," Catricala said as firecrackers thrown by protesting fishermen went off outside his offices.
But lawyers are among the most powerful of Italy's lobbies due both to their political influence and their sheer numbers--there are 240,000 lawyers for 60 million people, compared to 54,000 in France which has a slightly bigger population.
Lawyers are by far the biggest profession represented in parliament, suggesting Monti's non-elected technocrat government might have the best chance of reforming not only them but the whole notoriously inefficient legal system.
But they say the reforms will just make things worse.
The lawyers' main organization took out full page advertisements in leading newspapers last week to protest against the reforms, saying they would increase legal costs, undermine the protection of the weak, reduce expertise and unleash an uncontrolled market in fees.
"Say no to transforming professionals into entrepreneurs and businessmen," they said.
The lawyers oppose the abolition of minimum and maximum fees and the extension of an accelerated conciliation process for minor civil cases which would not require the use of lawyers.
"The rights of citizens are crushed in countries without democracy, but gagging lawyers is one of the instruments chosen by Italian politics to prejudice the rights of citizens through the use and abuse of the laws of the market," said Maurizio de Tilla, head of OUA, a political lawyers' lobby.
Lawyers also believe that the measures will undermine professional standards by cutting the length of probation by trainees and allowing businessmen to hold a majority interest in legal practices - raising a conflict of interest and undermining the lawyers' independence.
Valerio Spigarelli, head of the penal lawyers body, told Reuters the "insane" reforms would increase an already excessive number of attorneys. "What is not understood is that in reality we want reform but in quality not quantity," he said, adding that the Rome area alone had as many lawyers as France.
Italy's lawyers are treated with more respect than in the United States, where they are often seen as unprincipled money grabbers and are the butt of mocking jokes.
But there is some impatience in Italy over their objections to reforms by Monti, who still has high popularity ratings despite his painful austerity program, widely acknowledged as essential to ward off the debt crisis.
"We are against the strike ... against privileges. Competition is good for the people. Good lawyers don't need minimum fees ... make room for young people," Carlo Rienzi, president of the consumer organization Codacons, told Reuters.
"Italians will remember what lawyers have represented over the years - a silent contest to immobilize our court system, with the aim of making money through drawn-out trials," said a blogger called Zerotol on an Italian online forum.
LACK OF SYMPATHY
While there may be lack of sympathy for the lawyers themselves, there is widespread public support for a substantial reform of Italy's byzantine legal system, which has defied several government efforts in the past.
The average time taken to resolve a civil case in Italy is nearly seven-and-a-half years - seen as a major disincentive to investment with foreign firms averse to getting entangled in tortuous business disputes. The average to settle criminal cases through a long appeal process is nearly five years.
There is a backlog of nine million cases, 5.5 million of them civil and the rest criminal. Lawyers complain that the guilty often escape justice because of the statute of limitations.
The state paid out 84 million euros ($110 million) in 2011 alone as compensation for miscarriages of justice and delays.
Justice Minister Paola Severino said recently that Italy was the fourth most litigious country in Europe, with 2.8 million new cases brought in 2011.
"There are already too many lawyers in Italy but this is not why justice doesn't work. It is a question of lack of investment, of inefficiency ... we need a serious reform, there are too many judicial layers," said Elio Lanutti, president of Adusbef, another consumers' organization.
Like most of Italy's problems, there is nothing new under the Mediterranean sun.
One of the villains in Alessandro Manzoni's 19th century novel The Betrothed, perhaps the most widely read book in Italian, is a lawyer called Dr Azzeccargabugli, whose name can be loosely translated as unscrupulous case seeker. ($1 = 0.7639 euros)
(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer in Paris; Editing by Giles Elgood)